Some visionary directors have bought us the most heartfelt studies of human emotion and relationships recently. Tim Burton tells us to give in to the idiosyncrasies of the ones we love and accept them in Big Fish, Anthony Minghella thinks ordinary people will go to any lengths for love in Cold Mountain. And Peter and Bobby Farrelly show us how…
Hang on. The high priests of gross-out comedy? The guys responsible for the sperm in Cameron Diaz’s hair, Ben Stiller performing CPR on a dog, Woody Harrelson with a full bucket after milking a cow that turns out to be a bull, and Renee Zellweger kicking Jim Carrey over a cliff? Emotional? Profound? Tender?
Like Shallow Hal, the Farrellys’ new comedy Stuck on You has a softer side and a cleverly woven message about the way we see people we think of as ‘different’, all the while jamming in as many laughs as they can muster. Is their emotional core intentional, or are they getting too smart for their own good? According to Peter, it was a process of necessary evolution.
‘It was sort of conscious because after we did Me Myself and Irene we felt like we hit the ceiling,’ Farrelly says while on a publicity tour. ‘We didn’t want to outdo ourselves with each movie. And not just that, but we felt it can make a movie better if you have a little more depth to it besides just the jokes. There was just a time in our lives where we realised that if you keep going in the direction the audience expects you to go, it’s not as satisfying.’
So does that mean the Farrellys are going to do a genre jump? Can they imagine themselves doing Die Hard 7 or Titanic 2? ‘Not really,’ Peter says. ‘I like comedy, but I do like doing different degrees of comedy. I really enjoyed [Stuck on You], but it’s much deeper than anything we’ve done before, it’s got another layer. I can’t imagine making something that didn’t have some comedy in it.’
It seems natural that some level of seriousness would creep into Farrelly scripts. All their films have featured protagonists that are in some way disabled, differently abled or obese — the kind of people we share the real world with but who don’t make it to movie screens among the buffed heroes and bodacious babes very often.
Besides being two of the few moviemakers to portray the disabled anti-hero, they manage to make fun of them (like all good comedy movies do with their protagonists) without a shred of cruelty. Witness the scene in Stuck on You where conjoined twins Walt (Greg Kinnear) and Bob (Matt Damon) are discussing a recent event on Walt’s life when Bob asks ‘where was I?’
‘My brother and I are both drawn to people with disabilities,’ Peter says by way of explanation, describing he and brother Bobby’s longtime involvement in the disabled person mentoring program Best Buddies. ‘It’s kind of our world. We’ve met a lot of people with mental disabilities and I guess the bottom line is that we’re comfortable around these people.’
‘But there’s really no great message except that they’re fun, happy and cool people. People with disabilities in movies are always shown as the angel-type person, they’re better than us in some way, and I think it makes people uncomfortable around people with disabilities, they feel like they’re different and the truth is they’re not. A wheelchair is just like blonde hair, it’s part of them, it’s who they are.’
Now that the Farrellys have a history in movies (their debut as big time writer/directors was in 1994 and ten years is an age in Hollywood terms), there must be plenty of moments and favourite movies to reflect on.
‘It’s interesting,’ Peter says. ‘Kingpin was a big flop, it didn’t do any business, and until it came out on video and people started seeing it, it was just like my lonely little kid nobody would talk to. I analysed it backwards and forwards thinking ‘we must have done something wrong’ and it wasn’t until it became a cult hit that I realised it was a good movie, so I’m really close to that one.’
And how do two kids from a small town in the eastern US with no movie theatre become a force of nature in Hollywood?
‘We’d have to go to the city and we’d probably see a movie once every three months,’ Peter recalls. ‘But the ones I remember are ones like Blazing Saddles, Animal House and Airplane (released in Australia as Flying High), not just because I thought it was hilarious but because of the cult the Zucker brothers had — they were just normal guys from the Midwest who went to Hollywood and tried to make movies and pulled it off, that was certainly an inspiration for us to do the same thing.’
And with two more films in development, including the big name remake of The Three Stooges, comedy fans the world over can be glad the Farrelly brothers were so inspired.